There's something about the grace of its people, the diversity of its topography, the winsome sound of its music and language—even when you can't speak it—that burrows into your soul and leaves you itching to return again.
These warm and fuzzy feelings stand in contrast, however, to the desparate plight of a continent on which the fate of the rest of the world seems to hang.
It is in the furnace of Muslim Sudan that Osama bin Laden's and al-Qaida's hatred smouldered—and where he issued a "Declaration of War" against the United States in 1996.
Although it is the most impoverished continent on earth, greed for Africa's vast wealth of natural resources has created a fertile environment for the wars, colonialism and slave trade that have wracked the continent for centuries.
Until recently, the world stood idly by while Africa became an incubator for a global AIDS epidemic. The latest United Nations estimates say 26 million of the 40 million people infected with HIV worldwide live in Africa, and that Africa saw about 3.2 million of the nearly 5 million new infections recorded in 2005—most of whom are women and children.
In spite of what may appear to be the depressing realities of Africa's political and economic past and present, the nation's spiritual future could not be brighter. The observations of scholars (such as Philip Jenkins, in his book The Next Christendom) vividly reveal that the center of Christianity has shifted from the Western world to the East—and that Africa is at the epicenter of this shift.
For those who suspect the speculations of pointy-headed academics, we offer "Out of Africa" (page 28), just one example among many that the mission field of Africa has become a missionary-sending continent, and that God is using the creativity, spiritual sensitivity and courage of African church planters like Sunday Adelaja to take up where many of us in the West have left off.
These pioneers teach us that crises on the homefront are no excuse to neglect the Great Commission's call to cross-cultural witness. The students have become the teachers, and I, for one, don't plan on skipping class.
Recently I had a conversation with a friend who held credentials in a large denomination for several years. After confessing to his denominational officials that he viewed pornography online, his credentials were suspended, and he was placed in a program of restoration for several years.
At a gathering of ministers in his denomination, my friend stood up and confessed his failure to his colleagues. After returning home, he received calls from friends in ministry who also viewed pornography online, but were terrified to confess their failure to denominational officials for fear of losing their livelihoods.
The incident reveals the challenge denominations face in providing authentic accountability to their entire constituencies. (One official actually warned my friend not to tell him if he fell again—but to confess his sins to someone who would not be obligated to report his failure to the denomination.)
While denominations are composed of people who hold the best of intentions and the highest of ideals, the entropic effects of institutionalism are unavoidable. History is littered with institutions that lost sight of their reason for existence and embraced the goal of self-preservation instead. In the process, they neglected the very people they intended to serve.
Some who have left denominations have done so out of rebellion, bent on escaping the oversight of what they perceive as narrow-minded institutions. But others have departed in search of deeper accountability—not independence. These reluctant pilgrims should be encouraged, not criticized.
As Ron Carpenter says in this issue's cover story, "My generation will not be loyal to a denomination, but they will die for a man." This passion is not birthed in rosy idealism, but in the realization that effective ministry cannot be accomplished unless we relinquish individualism and commit to God and one another with a loyalty that transcends institutional structure.
Ironically, this commitment to relationship is not a revolutionary concept. In fact, it's what gave birth to every denomination that has stood the test of time.
Thankfully, it would appear that a new wind is blowing through denominational structures, and leaders are rediscovering the importance of spiritual parenting, relational leadership and flexibility in the face of changing times—further evidence that God is very much at work in His church.
Lest we think it a role reserved for the intellectually or spiritually superior, let's recall how Matthew was chosen: with a pair of dice (see Acts 1:26).
Lest we think it a path to the finer things in life, let's remember Paul's station: "hungry ... thirsty ... in rags ... homeless ..." (1 Cor 4:11, NIV).
No, apostleship is not a matter of aspiration but of obedience. It's a divine call that often comes unexpectedly upon those whom God chooses--not necessarily those who would appear to have all the talent, charisma and spiritual power needed to fill the shoes of an apostle.
Sure, apostles are those who have made themselves available for the purposes of God, and they are often gifted with passion and skills fitting their callings. But most ultimately find themselves dumbfounded by the ways in which He ends up using them in His kingdom.
I must confess that I've been dubious about the existence of modern-day apostles. Like C. Peter Wagner, I'm no fan of the self-appointed ones. And I'm not sure whether I like using the title as a form of address. (As a second-generation Pentecostal, "brother" or "sister" works just fine for me.)
But my skeptical leanings were cured by talking to Samuel Lee and Kayy Gordon and reading about Zhang Rongliang in preparation for "Apostles Among Us".
Each of these are consumed with the desire to see others pick up the baton of ministry and go further than they have. And they are too busy equipping pastors and strategizing how to reach nations to worry about titles.
The "apostle debate" is not over yet: Will denominations seek to encourage apostolic church-planting and mentorship models that are bearing so much fruit in the non-Western world?
Will apostolic networks address the concerns of accountability and sound theology--all while warding off the trend toward institutionalism that threatens historic denominations?
Both must avoid the triumphalistic notion that God works through only one type of church structure and accept the fact that ecclesiastical governments are only temporary. They exist for the sake of the church's function, which is to equip the saints--until Jesus returns.
As you read this issue of Ministries Today, I hope you'll find--like I did--that wherever God is building His church, apostles are laying the foundation.
The titles they wear may differ with the expressions of time and culture, but their function is the same: plant congregations, equip leaders, confront demonic powers and marshal resources for kingdom purposes.
Even the crustiest of skeptics would agree.
The funny thing is, I have no aversion to digging out a commentary and poring over a lexicon to determine what Ezekiel and Zechariah were saying in their sometimes-enigmatic prophecies.
Now, I would never suggest that the words of modern-day prophets should be handled with the same reverence as the oracles of biblical prophets that have found a place in the canon.
But, any time God speaks--or we think He may be speaking--we should listen up, discern and apply what we hear ... whether He chooses to speak through the pages of Scripture, the lips of a prophet or the mouth of an ornery donkey.
Why? Because when the God of the universe speaks to His creation through prophecy, it is an act of great mercy--especially since He has already spoken in Scripture.
Some may say that God has said all He ever needed to say in His written Word. They're right. But more than bringing new revelation, prophecy is often most valuable when it reminds God's people of what He has already said. Consider the warnings and judgments of the major and minor prophets, which ultimately have their foundation in the covenant stipulations of Deuteronomy.
The two most prolific authors of Scripture, Moses and Paul, both lamented not the abundance of prophecy but its dearth.
Several Israelites came to Moses complaining about the spontaneous outbursts of unexpected prophets Eldad and Medad, and Moses replied, "'I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!'" (Num. 11:29, NIV).
Paul echoed Moses' sentiments when he said, "I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy" (1 Cor. 14:5).
This enthusiasm for the prophetic was not born out of inexperience. Both Moses and Paul were aware of the controversy that prophecy would bring the people of God. But they were more concerned about the spiritual famine Amos speaks of--"a famine of hearing the words of the Lord" (see Amos 8:11).
Sure, God doesn't have to send us prophets, but isn't it just like Him to give us a second chance to listen and obey?
As you read this issue of Ministries Today, I pray that you'll be challenged to embrace prophetic ministry. Fraudulent prophets will always be with us, as will sneaky evangelists, abusive pastors, heretical teachers and power-hungry apostles.
But, if we allow our fear of the counterfeit to shake our faith in the authentic, we may miss out on hearing God speak.
I've worked with pastors whose skills and professionalism could have landed them high-paying jobs in the business world, and I've served others whose gifts were better suited for the Teamsters' union. Tommy Barnett, whom I had the privilege of interviewing for this issue (see "Dream Weaver," page 38), belongs in the first group.
Pastors of large churches like Phoenix First Assembly aren't entrusted with their burgeoning flocks just because of an ability to manage programs and invent new church- growth schemes. God has seen fit to bless their ministries because He has created them with gifts tailor-made for their unique situations.
From my brief time with Pastor Barnett, here are a few observations of the types of people that God often calls to fulfill the ministry of the shepherd:
Simplicity: While the world may extol the virtues of a complex person able to weigh options, calculate risk and analyze potential, a good pastor keeps it simple: "Preach the Word, and love people," my father--himself a pastor--once advised me.
It's not that a pastor is disengaged from the complexities of life, but he or she has the ability to immediately sift through challenging enigmas, separating the eternal from the temporary. It's no wonder that the effective ministry of a pastor surrounds the three things that are anything but temporary: God, His Word and people.
Focus: Successful pastors like Tommy Barnett have the uncanny ability to focus--not just on the lofty goals that keep them in the prayer closet and the board room, but also on the individuals who sit in their offices seeking counsel.
When you're in a room talking with Pastor Barnett, you and he are the only ones there. Not that this comes naturally. If anything, the gift of focus is one that must be honed and practiced, as one's ministry grows and one's sphere of influence broadens.
Dependency: Once again, this is not a sought-after quality, but without it a pastor will become a smoldering wick in a matter of years. Leaders like Tommy Barnett constantly extol the value of those whom they lead, recognizing that their effectiveness is contingent on the partnership of those who share their visions. They have learned to depend on God--and others.
Good pastors revel in the productive service of those whom they lead--even when it has the potential of eclipsing their own ministries. Unthreatened, they recognize this for what it truly is: an indication of their own fruitfulness.
May God raise up more pastors like Tommy Barnett--simply engaged with the things that matter, focused on God and His people and willing to take the risk of dependence.